We're in the process of making changes to improve our situation. Those things include, but are not limited to, the following verbs: cutting, reducing, canceling, bartering, accepting, managing, trimming, couponing, watching, budgeting, switching off, refiling, rethinking, repurposing, hanging, discussing, teaching, learning, relearning, valuing, sorting, exploring and looking.
While I search for my next job (assuming there's one out there), write, and hausfrau my days away, I want to use this space to write about what it's really like to be part of the New Poor. It's an idea that the news organizations seem to be picking up on. People who've been poor, are poor and assume they will always be poor must be thinking "Seriously? Now being poor is newsworthy?" It is sad commentary on our society that the spotlight seems to be aimed at the plights of those who had and lost instead of those who never had to begin with.
So here we are. We can be counted in that number of people who've lost their slippery grip on the Middle Class. We're kind of free falling at the moment, but we expect a landing (hard? soft?) sooner rather than later. Part one appears to require about six months. Details on that will have to come later.
But the point of this series of posts isn't to gain sympathy. I don't want to hear any hang in theres or it's going to be okay or any advice for finding jobs. Golly, that sounds bitchy, but what I'm attempting to do here is to show in snapshots of real life what happens after you find you've dropped over that metaphorical edge. It seems to me that stories about the New Poor focus on some of the more extreme situations - people long out of work, sick, without health insurance......Well, we're not extreme. We're not homeless yet. We have a car in decent working order. I have my unemployment insurance and MathMan is still working and we have his health, dental and vision benefits on which to rely. Everyone is healthy.
The changes in our lifestyle come more in the newly ragged edges of things. We're letting go of things that many of us in the Middle Class had quite taken for granted. We're re-examining our needs. We're looking for ways to restructure our lives so that 1. We don't find ourselves in a similar mess in another ten years and 2. We can be happy in a simpler situation.
So the reason I'm writing these pieces is to give a voice to those of us in the murky middle. We're the ones who still have barely enough, who haven't been able to cross the threshold from donor to receiver quite yet, who still have Middle Class muscle memory, who want to think that everything is going to get better and not worse, but who harbor deep fears that this isn't rock bottom yet. That's the story I'm trying to tell here.
Thanks for joining me. If you find yourself without much to say in response to these posts, don't worry. It's taken me two months to reach the point where I feel like I can finally write about some of these things.
Thanks for being here.....
If you've never been in poverty, I'd like to suggest you give it a try purely as a learning experience. For one thing, and quite obviously, it helps you to understand the very real differences between need and want. But honestly? This just......well. It's like they say - it's someplace to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there. I couldn't even bring myself to say it's a nice place. It's not.
I keep hoping that we're just visitors here. Let me clarify - I'm not talking Third World Poverty. I'm not even referring to the long-term, pre-existing condition of poverty that many people have struggled with either all their lives, or worse, for generations. Let's see, there must be a word for it. Has some clever person coined a phrase for it yet? It's rather like being expelled from the Eden that was the American Middle Class. We took a long, bumpy road full of warning signs to get here, but, sugar, we have arrived.
Now the classic and simple definition of poverty is: /n/ the condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support; condition of being poor; indigence.
(Looks around the four bedroom/three bath split level in a working class subdivision and scratches her head....)
Okay, maybe we're just dipping our toe into the pool of poverty, but we're much too close for comfort and it would be a breeze for anything to shove us face first and fully clothed smack dab into the deep end.
Now we find ourselves on the fringes. We've become those people you hear about. We've spent most of our adult lives living one paycheck away from disaster. And then bam! That one paycheck went away. Now we're struggling to put food on the table and gas in the tank so that MathMan can get to his jobs (Yes, jobs. He's coaching now, too.). We're currently discussing all sorts of ways to cut back further, squeezing the turnip just a bit harder, and adjusting our family's lifestyle to accommodate our role as the New Poor.
I'm still grasping for the good things here. While I was raised by parents who remembered the Great Depression, I am product enough of the prosperous times to not have learned the lessons of the past. In trying to protect us from knowing the humiliating poverty in which they grew up, my parents neglected to let us have many opportunities for self-denial or restraint. They were hardly extravagant, but we lived comfortably enough. Sure, we heard the word no. My family was far from wealthy. We had things, but they were second best kinds of things. The swimming pool was above ground, not inground. Our friends went to Clearwater Beach while we went to Opryland. We got the Coleco instead of the Atari and the cars we drove were always used and so on.
We were rarely, if ever, deprived in any real sense of the word. Except, our parents didn't talk to us about money or money management. In that regard, we were grossly let down, as were many of our peers, I suspect.
Today, as my family navigates its way through our financial challenges, I hope that we will do right by our kids and teach them how to avoid the mistakes we made. Because, don't get me wrong, we made many many mistakes over the years. We tripped on through our days assuming that there would be a brighter future. We counted on pay raises, increased property values, and ongoing employment. We envisioned the classic American Dream of work hard, keep your nose clean, do good and all will be okay. Except that doesn't begin to compare to the trouble you invite when you begin adulthood with student loans, have more kids than you can afford, take too many risks (or not enough maybe?) in the workplace and live not extravagantly, but far enough beyond your means so that you leave no cushion for the lean times.
I know that some of you have known real poverty, First World or otherwise. I know that many of you learned the lessons to be frugal and to save. Others of you either absorbed this knowledge, despite your own relatively comfortable upbringings or you possessed a sense of natural frugality. I know that among you, there are some who have never known a day's want and you never will. Each of us carry our own experiences and, hopefully, we can both cope with ours and understand and appreciate, to some degree, the experiences of that person over there.
What we take away from our experiences and how we use the knowledge is subject to the whims and foibles of we humans, but there's no denying the fact that some scrap of something is transferred to us. This little trip into poverty has shown me something that I hadn't really quite grasped until I experienced it.
To live with the barrage of reminders that you're lacking something (even if you've never had it, the world via peers and school and television will let you know you're missing something) is crazy stressful. I can feel it. Instead of a sense of happy reunion when the kids arrive home from school, I feel dread. They're going to be hungry and I've got to make sure they don't eat up all the items I'm saving for their lunches tomorrow. I know that Sophia is going to ask me again for the five dollars for the chorus pizza dinner and point out that the D.A.R.E. program tee shirt money is due on Friday. Nathan won't stop growing and his one pair of jeans are now two inches too short. "Let's just hang on a bit longer. It'll be shorts season soon."
I try to imagine what it must be like to live with this all the time. It's exhausting. It's frustrating. It is exactly what it's called in some circles - grinding. It wears you down. It's not easy to live here and not be affected by all kinds of expectations. The kids have pretty much learned to stop asking for things. Nevertheless, there are things they need, not just want. That's when it goes from being an opportunity to learn to outright frustration for all involved. They feel like they've learned the difference between need and want and you're rewarding them with just another reminder that "we can't afford it right now." I feel like a failure.
(I'll be writing about how schools don't make things easy for the poor or the new poor in a later post.)
Over the last few weeks, the best I can do is find those genuine teachable moments and voice the very real hope that we are just visitors here in the poverty place. I remind them that while we're here, we should stop and feel. Let's remember what this feels like. If and when we come out the other side, it's important that we don't forget this. We must remember. I want the chance and comfort to forget, but I want to remember because in remembering we'll know that it's better to deny ourselves that tiny extravagance so that we can set aside a bit of money for safekeeping. More importantly, though, I think it will help us to understand what it's like for so many who would trade us for even a day to have what we have now, while we feel like we're doing without.
I'm not the most deep thinking person, but I can tell you that I'm working to find meaning in all this. Maybe it's to keep from completely despairing. Maybe it's a distraction from that creeping fear that this isn't quite so temporary. Whatever it is, I know that I have to believe that we're just visitors here. That's why I'm sending postcards like this one to myself.
Don't wish you were here.....